Living and Recovering with Schizoaffective and Autism Disorders
by MJ Van Dyk
Listen to Executive Director Gabriel Nathan read this post aloud:
Living with a mental health condition can feel like a solitary battle, one that is often misunderstood and stigmatized. But it’s important to know that recovery is possible, and there is hope. As someone who has struggled with schizoaffective disorder and autism, I understand firsthand the challenges of managing mental illness. However, I have also experienced progress in my journey towards wellness, and I want to share my story with others who may be facing similar struggles.
My journey with mental illness began in high school when I was diagnosed with depression. I struggled with the typical teenage experiences of fitting in and feeling like I belonged, and my mood made it difficult for me to get out of bed and engage with the world. At one point I was hospitalized near the end of my schooling which made it hard for me to graduate. I was fortunate when I returned to not have to come up with a cover story for why I was gone, as I was introverted and I did not have many friends. While I was initially resistant to the idea of seeking professional help, my admission to the hospital was entirely voluntary, and looking back, I am grateful for the experience. While I thought that my family was overreacting at first, I was able to follow along with their wishes which helped in the long run. This was my first experience dealing with therapists and hospitals and, in some weird way, I am glad for the experience.
Though I still struggled after high school, I went on to complete college. Some amount of paranoia affected my quality of life, though I didn’t have a formal diagnosis beyond depression and social anxiety. I had delusional feelings of unrequited love for a person that I never met. Ultimately, I graduated with mostly B’s and some A’s in a technical field (Biochemistry), but the challenges would follow me later on. I wasn’t doing therapy regularly and while I had a hospitalization, I was not prescribed or taking medication.
A couple of years after college, I went on to complete a Master’s degree in a different field of Quantitative Psychology. The change in studies was challenging but fun for me, and I felt that it would help me to better find work matching my career interests. Over time, I began to experience symptoms that I didn’t understand. I felt like I was losing my sense of self and thinking thoughts that were unusual for me. Looking back, I can see that my thinking was not rational, and I was preoccupied with trying to influence the weather and find secret meanings in news articles and social media posts. I also developed a belief that I was a God or capable of doing things on that kind of divine level. These thoughts were terrifying, and I coped by drinking alcohol, which I now know is not a healthy or effective way to manage mental health symptoms. I think the symptoms were challenging as I was dealing with rejection from different sources. Ultimately, I am glad to have completed my degree with the support and guidance of my professors, including the laboratory that I was a part of. While they were not fully understanding of my experiences, partly because I had not shared them at the time, I am able to look back and reflect upon the experience that I had.
Eventually, I received a diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder, which was scary and overwhelming. However, I am grateful for the diagnosis because it allowed me to understand what was happening to me and to seek treatment. The diagnosis developed as my family could see that I wasn’t doing well and got me to go to the hospital, which ended up being voluntary. At this point I had enough symptoms of mental health as I was experiencing a break from reality, that I ended up being diagnosed with schizophrenia, and later schizoaffective disorder. With treatment I started talk therapy and was prescribed an antipsychotic medication, which helped to manage my symptoms. I also learned more about my other diagnosis of autism, which helped to explain some of my communication and social difficulties. While I understand both conditions to be lifelong, I do not view them as a life sentence as I feel the diagnoses help me to treat my underlying symptoms and get treatment.
8 Tips for Telling Your Own Story
Do you have a story to tell? Chances are, you do. This free guide will walk you through our Editor in Chief's top suggestions.
My last episode was a couple of months back in August/September 2022, I thought that people from major corporations like Amazon were controlling me like using stomach sounds like a clicker/trigger to try to create entertainment or media. I feel like my symptoms weren’t as bad this time as I can look through playlists and realize that mostly my thinking was okay. But there were still residual signs that I wasn’t doing alright. I credit my recovery to regular talk therapy and medication.
While managing my mental health conditions has not been easy, I have made progress over time. I have learned coping skills and strategies for managing my symptoms, and I have found communities of people who understand what I am going through. I have also worked to build my resilience and to become more independent. I’ve gained skills in my wellness toolbox like meditation as a coping strategy if I am feeling anxious or concerned, music therapy to help to redirect depressed thoughts, and cognitive behavioral therapy to challenge delusions or anxiety or depression that I am experiencing. I like to use “box breathing” when I feel anxious, and I find journaling helpful to focus on positive thinking and to better prioritize my time.
Music remains important to me as it did when I was experiencing symptoms. Back then, I turned to Spotify as a means of having some control over my situation. It was one way that I felt like I was controlling media and the weather. Looking back at my old playlists now, I can see how far I’ve come in my journey towards recovery. I recently decided to create a mixtape that reflects the trajectory of my life since then. It was a cathartic experience for me, but also a challenging one. It was difficult for me to narrow down the selection to just 10 or 15 songs. The first tracks described the trajectory as my thinking got more distorted and my delusions got worse. It included songs that dealt with themes of heaven or hell, rap which I don’t normally listen to, and songs covering difficult emotions. The next few songs reflected my experience with music therapy, which I credit in part for helping me to redirect my thinking. And finally, the last songs were B-sides and alternate tracks from my days of experiencing symptoms. Overall this experience was a way of acknowledging that part of my life, while also celebrating the progress that I’ve made.
One of the most significant steps I have taken in my recovery has been to find work. I am currently working as a dishwasher, which is not my dream job, but it is a step towards greater independence and financial stability. I am proud of the progress I have made in this job and the confidence it has given me to pursue other opportunities. I am hopeful that, with time, I will be able to find work that is a better fit for my interests and abilities.
In addition to my work, I have found solace and support in online communities. These communities provide a space for people with similar experiences to connect and share their stories. It is comforting to know that I am not alone and that there are others out there who understand what I am going through.
Overall, I am grateful for my journey, even though it has been challenging. Through my experiences, I have learned I am resilient when faced with difficult circumstances regarding mental health, and to seek help or support when I need it. While mental health conditions like schizoaffective disorder and autism may be lifelong, they are not all-encompassing and with appropriate interventions and treatment they can be made more manageable.
Recovery is not a linear process, and there are still times when I struggle with my symptoms. However, I have learned to accept that mental illness is a part of my life and to focus on the things that I can control, such as my self-care, my relationships, and my goals. I have also learned to be kinder to myself and to celebrate my accomplishments, no matter how small they may seem.
If you are struggling with a mental health condition, it is important to know that you are not alone. There are many resources available to help you, including therapy, medication, support groups, and self-help techniques. It is important to find what works for you and to be patient with yourself as you navigate your journey. I am an example that recovery is possible and I am grateful for the community through OC87 Recovery Diaries for allowing me to share my story and journey forwards.
EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR / EDITOR: Gabriel Nathan | DESIGN: Leah Alexandra Goldstein | SITE ORIGINATOR: Bud Clayman